It was probably a poor choice on my part to read Silent Spring while traveling through South America. Indeed it was eye opening, as Rachel Carson went into great detail about the perils of dousing our vegetation with carcinogenic herbicides and insecticides, only to lose the war against insect pests and kill entire ecosystems in the process. Mostly I tried to squelch my fears about developing cancer from air-borne chemicals, or from “treated” vegetables, by telling myself that the book was published in 1962 and surely that was just a phase when DDT ruled. As it turns out, though, often times South America appears to be a reflection of the U.S. circa the 50s and 60s and pesticides use is no exception.

Shortly after Dave and I noticed the son of our host family spraying the front garden with a backpack sprayer full of pesticides, we spoke with a local in Cuellaje who told us horror stories from his time working on a fruit plantation. Often times, he said, pregnant women would show up looking to make supplementary income for their families. The bosses wouldn’t refuse the extra help and allowed them to spray fungicides on the crops without any sort of protective clothing. Not surprisingly some of their babies were born with birth defects; one’s facial features were under-developed and another was born without kidneys. Clearly this guy had seen firsthand the effects of handling these types of chemicals, but I can’t say the same for our host family. If they did know, I assume they would have handled the spray backpack with more caution, instead of leaving on the outside bench that doubles as a play area for their 3-year-old.

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March 10, 2014